I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked by clients about the ‘rules’ for dating whilst in the midst of divorce, and I do not just mean whether or not to accept the invitation to come up for coffee on that first date – although I have been asked for advice on that too!
The reality is that for many people the experience of having to ‘start again’ after years of marriage is a very daunting one. Emerging from the pain and distress of a broken marriage and yet being supported and encouraged by friends and family to get out and meet people and make a new life is not easy, nor is it necessarily what everybody wants.
So a client will often ask – “now that I am divorcing....moving out....living a separate life under the same roof....am I allowed to accept an invitation to dinner….or even to run away for the weekend ….and must I keep it a secret….or should I tell my spouse....or talk to the children about it….(and for many, most important of all)….will it affect my settlement?”
So, at last, in response I have thought through a few guidelines which I hope may help at least in those uncertain and nervous early stages….
Here then the dos and don’ts of dating and divorce...
Do….think very carefully about embarking upon any new relationship – these are sensitive and difficult times and without over complicating it, you need to be sure that it is the right step at the right moment…on the other hand – try not to miss the opportunity when it arrives….you may regret it….so be patient and thoughtful.
Do….be discreet for as long as it seems both practicable and wise. It may only involve one or two dates, so why announce the news prematurely before you know whether it is going to last – then find yourself having to deny that it is serious, when it really isn’t.
Don’t….however assume that sensible discretion alone will always work effectively – friends, acquaintances and colleagues with divided loyalties can be indiscreet or careless enough, but an angry and jealous spouse can be very focused in seeking out the truth – hacking, bugging, tracing and following do happen – and not so rarely. Remember, for example, that many wives may be looking for the chance to blame the marriage breakdown on another woman ….. and that many husbands will be only too thrilled to seize on their wife’s new relationship as an excuse to stop the maintenance payments…… so be cautious.
Do….be careful, considerate and patient in dealing with your spouse and the children if and when you reach the point where you really do want to acknowledge the existence of a new important relationship. These are delicate moments and attempts to introduce a new partner to the children, of all ages, prematurely, clumsily or deviously, can prove disastrous – especially if your spouse is not supportive but nervous, bitter or angry. If your relationship is serious then there will hopefully be a time when this can be done calmly, sensibly and without too much distress. If it proves not to be, then you will gain nothing from having announced and disclosed a new serious relationship only to find that it is not …...
Don’t….attempt to repeat this introduction process too frequently - bear in mind that in this context especially, the children may well find it hard to meet a series of ‘uncles’ or ‘aunts’ to each of whom they may become attached only to see them fade out of the family picture and be replaced.
Do…..try to work together as parents, if necessary with professional counselling, to make the process of the separation and divorce, and then the integrating of new partners, as calm and constructive as possible. It is well established that step parenthood is very challenging but there is much good advice and guidance available. You may find yourself in several roles - introducing your new partner to your children - meeting their children too – and indeed introducing the children to each other. You will need to work hard to understand the emotional complexities of this – do seek experienced guidance if you feel that the family can benefit from it.
Do….think very hard about moving in together without great care and serious discussion – especially with your solicitor. Cohabitation is not easily defined but even a suggestion that it may be happening can be enough to derail sensible negotiations and it could have a significant impact on the financial negotiations and the final settlement.
Don’t….forget that it may even be possible to cohabit in two separate homes. Certainly you must keep your own separate households but if, in practice, you share each other’s homes then beware.
Do….be cautious about mixing your finances together in any way, through joint expenditure on major items, a joint account, a joint purchase of a significant asset – keep your finances entirely separate for as long as it is necessary and preferably until well after all financial issues are resolved.
Don’t….overlook the probability that in the course of the divorce proceedings you will have to answer questions about your future intention to co-habit or re-marry. If your answer is yes, then you are quite likely to have to provide a reasonable level of disclosure of your new partner’s finances. It may even be necessary for them to provide documents or to attend court in due course to answer questions. It may be that the new relationship is indeed entirely irrelevant to the financial issues – but this is not always the case and you need to be clear about the consequences. If in doubt – discuss with your solicitor.
Do….bear in mind the likely impact on the proceedings of a new relationship. Even if you are advised that its existence is in most respects irrelevant to the financial settlement, the provocative arrival on the scene of a new partner can still make the process, and settlement, far more difficult and can prove a psychological or emotional bar to resolving matters fairly and without rancour.
Don’t….underestimate the relevance of the grounds for divorce – it is generally possible to finesse a way through the rather unsatisfactory present system without too much confrontation. However, proven or admitted adultery is one of the grounds on which a Petition can be based, and in the absence of other easy options, and especially if there is some anger or
bitterness on one side, you may be offering a ground which was not previously available, and which you may prefer to avoid. It is now generally inappropriate to name names, but not always possible to prevent this if it is insisted upon.
Do….try to establish whether, if your new partner is also married, there is a risk that you could become embroiled in their divorce proceedings and find yourself being quizzed about the nature of the relationship, your own financial position, and your future intentions – one divorce case at a time is usually more than enough.
So….do try to find that balance between accepting the offer of a coffee, and thinking calmly and sensibly about discretion, tact and the impact of your divorce case on all the members of your family – tread carefully!